Priti Patel is one of the women promoted in David Cameron's reshuffle. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The Cameroon dream fades as the new right continues to rise

Less than ten months away from the general election, David Cameron’s changes are largely cosmetic.

It was superficially described as the “women’s reshuffle”, freshening up the Conservative front benches with telegenic female ministers and bidding goodbye to “stale, pale and male” old-timers. This was only partly true. Several older cabinet members were sent on their way – including 73-year-old George Young and 74-year-old Kenneth Clarke – but William Hague and Michael Gove, who was loathed by teachers and had made too many enemies (though not in the press), also made surprising departures. At the same time, the junior Treasury minister Nicky Morgan was promoted to the position of Education Secretary after just three months attending cabinet as women’s minister.

But less than ten months away from the general election the changes are largely cosmetic. There are now five women with full cabinet status, up from three (eight women can attend cabinet, out of 33 ministers). Raising that number will be a struggle without resorting to all-female shortlists as Labour did in 1997. It is only as high as it is because of David Cameron’s adoption of the so-called A-list of preferred candidates in 2010, half of whom were women. The Prime Minister has attempted to make his party more representative of society but there is much to do.

There are still only two non-white faces at the cabinet table, compared to 15 per cent of the general population. In Nicky Morgan, meanwhile, the country has yet another Education Secretary who was privately educated. Serious structural reforms and a heavy dose of political will are required to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to stand for parliament – a criticism from which Labour is not exempt, after recent research by the Guardian showed that half of the party’s candidates in marginal seats had previously worked as special advisers or in think tanks.

Underneath the media froth about tokenism, there was a much more important shift in representation within the cabinet. Out went many moderate or One-Nation Tories – the “wets” of old. In their place are younger, more ideologically driven politicians such as Liz Truss, the new Environment Secretary, who was one of the co-authors of the neo-Thatcherite manifesto Britannia Unchained. The intellectual momentum in the Conservative Party is with the new right, represented by Ms Truss, Sajid Javid, Matthew Hancock and Priti Patel. They are, like George Osborne, committed to an arid, small-state, free-market conservatism. Would that a Burkean such as Jesse Norman had a place in the cabinet.

The other notably ascendant group is the militant Eurosceptics. As Conservative leader, Mr Hague, who will step down as an MP at the next election, was a mainstream Eurosceptic, robustly against joining the euro but definitely “in”. Since then, the party’s centre has shifted rightward and he is now regarded as soft on the issue and as having been “captured” by Foreign Office mandarins.

Mr Hague’s successor, Philip Hammond (who, in a long career, has shown little interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs and speaks with all the spontaneity of a Liverpool Street Station platform announcer), has said that he would vote for withdrawal from the EU unless significant powers are repatriated. Mr Gove, now in charge of party discipline as Chief Whip, is of the same view.

At best, the reshuffle has reaffirmed Mr Cameron’s authority: he has been able to make sweeping changes to his team because Tory MPs believe that he has a chance of continuing as Prime Minister after May 2015. However, it has also confirmed his estrangement from his party’s ideological heartland: his rising stars are not pragmatic “Cameroons”, and the leader who longed for the Conservatives to “stop banging on about Europe” is destined not to get his wish. 

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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